British Jews, Front And Center
You could look high and low at American films made after the Production Code came into effect in 1933 and not find a Hollywood movie in which someone speaks Yiddish or actively embodies Jewish identity except in the most anodyne way. Sure, Gentleman’s Agreement took on the subject of anti-Semitism in 1947, but the treatment of actual Jews in the film was antiseptic, cleansing them of personality. British filmmakers, by contrast, while they also had to submit their finished product to a censorship board for a rating of audience suitability, apparently felt more comfortable acknowledging the presence of Jews and blacks.
That is one of the messages that one takes away from Robert Hamer’s 1947 film noir It Always Rains on Sunday, which is receiving a rare re-release in a splendid new 35mm print at Film Forum. Sunday is a taut suspense film about the effect on the Bethnal Green neighborhood when one of its sons returns home after escaping from Dartmoor Prison. Hamer’s treatment of the main plot and its themes of betrayal, thwarted love and ambition in a working-class community are not dissimilar from those of comparable American films noir of the period. His direction and Douglas Slocombe’s glistening camerawork are every bit as skilled as those you’d find in the works of Robert Siodmak, Anthony Mann or any of the great noir directors in Hollywood.
What sets Sunday apart from its American counterparts is its concentration on the texture of the Bethnal Green community, which was predominantly Jewish in the post-WWII era. Several of the film’s major characters are openly presented as Jews. We hear Yiddish spoken in the street and at the dinner table. Morry (Sydney Tafler), a philandering bandleader/shop owner, is told by his long-suffering wife (Betty Ann Davies), “I’ve always put up with your little shiksas.” No translation or explanation is offered. Morry’s brother Lou (John Slater), a slick, well-turned-out midlevel hood, is described by a family member as “a goniff.”
All the Jewish characters, which run the gamut from a petty criminal and his would-be musical star brother to their social worker sister and their warm and affectionate father, are seen as fully realized, three-dimensional human beings. None of them, not even the potentially ominous Lou, is seen as wholly evil. In fact, the most villainous character in the film is a church organist who scolds children for “desecrating our Sabbath,” but spends Sunday evening fencing stolen goods.
Perhaps one of the reasons that It Always Rains on Sunday is so generous to its Jewish characters is the fact that producer Michael Balcon (Daniel Day-Lewis’ grandfather) and co-screenwriter Henry Cornelius were both Jews. Robert Hamer, who directed the film, was also responsible for Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of the most acidic comedies of social climbing ever made. It might just be that Hamer was a man who knew the difference between a community holding itself together in difficult circumstances and a striving arriviste. Either way, It Always Rains on Sunday is one of the underrated gems of post-WWII British film.